Theater archives

The Washington Psst


Constance Congdon’s new play, Lips, she claims, was inspired by a debate she had with her cousin. What would happen if a woman in a position of political
power became involved in a sex scandal of Clinton-Lewinsky magnitude? What if her partner in sex crime happened to be another woman? The answers to these questions would surely be a barometer of progressive attitudes in the United States, and might provide material for a contemporary screwball comedy set inside the Beltway. Unfortunately, Congdon’s play has many of the bad qualities of an argument held at a drunken dinner party: its participants are likely to be confused and overbearing, it isn’t funny, and it goes on late into the night.

Set in the near future, the plot initially concerns Rachel (Robin Morse), an imprisoned computer hacker contacted by one of the president’s aides, Andy (Stephen Barker Turner), who appears to be involved in a double cross. Andy has been hired by the president’s opponents to prove that the president is a lesbian. “We’re looking to confirm what we already know,” he tells her. Rachel’s job is to provide evidence of the president’s homosexuality by having a tryst with her in a public park. In return, the hacker will be granted early release. Rachel’s concerned that she won’t regain custody of her daughter if she’s outed, however. Andy convinces her that her involvement in the affair will make her a sought-after pundit, the “ambassadoress of Gaydonia.”

Then, several shaky hairpin turns in the script later, we discover that
the whole scenario is a setup. The
president herself has decided to engineer the scandal,
in a strange bid to bring “these issues” to bear in a national forum. Though straight and married, she admits—in the middle of a press conference about a crisis in the Baltic States—that she’s had a lesbian experience. For President Joni (Lizbeth Mackay), the truth isn’t
as important as the spin, ultimately, and she expects the story to play out like a right-wing smear campaign, whereby she can gain public sympathy. The president’s insane assumption that this is a good way to spark debate about something already so controversial makes one wonder how she got elected. In the meantime we discover that Andy had an affair with Rachel years ago, is still infatuated with her, and is the real father of her child.

The plot is such an unstable house of cards that it can’t support the weight of any real social or political satire. Nor can director Greg Leaming’s wooden hand flog this dead Democratic donkey to its feet. Congdon is madly out of touch to think that an unswervingly and earnestly liberal woman like Joni might get elected in the early part of the 21st century. That unlikelihood squashes the even more dubious suggestion that a president so dedicated to fighting the right rather than making bipartisan nice-nice would construct a fake scandal in order to make a weak point about “gay women.” (For some unexplained reason, Congdon mostly avoids the word “lesbian.”) An effective satire ought to have a quotient of recognizable truth about the screwed-up way its subject actually functions. But Lips‘s exegesis feels tiresome and contrived. No matter the absurd highs and lows of the Clinton affair, its two central players always seemed motivated by compelling human qualities—lust, ambition, lack of self-control—anything but political agendas. That’s what made that debacle worth watching.